The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Transcending Textual and Temporal Boundaries: S.Y. Agnon on Witnessing and Belief

In this paper, I reflect on S.Y. Agnon, the Galicia born Israeli writer and Nobel Prize recipient, who pondered the nature of belief as well as the reasons for the lack of faith in modern times. I suggest that many of his unique allegorical stories function as secular commentaries on classic sacred texts, while at the same time, they challenge the boundaries between fact and fiction and between the sacred and the profane. While ultimately representing an homage to the holly texts, Agnon’s narrational strategy is replicated in a number of ways in his vast opus. Through repeated incursions into Midrash (the ancient commentary on the Hebrew scriptures dating to the 2nd century and earlier), Agnon revives the art of quotation from the sacred writings, commonly pointing back to the Talmudic and to Chasidic or Kabbalah figures, in the shape of pseudo-quotations. Agnon’s text, the sacred meta-text, and the interpretation of each cited scriptural unit, take his reader back to a multitude of cultural contexts, both Biblical and post-Biblical. This complex inter-textual web draws from and relies on a complex signifying system of connotations and values, which ultimately put into question the relationship between the sacred and the secular and point to a new mode of spirituality.

I propose that in exploring the very process of sanctification, Agnon’s stories ultimately call attention to the fictive or real status of each. The unexpected byproduct of Agnon’s approach to storytelling is that the sacred authority of the ancient texts he cites extends its domain further onto his own modern text. In this fashion, Agnon’s work becomes a modern exemplum of the imaginary quotation communicating to the world its newness as well as its ancient pedigree.